March 21, 2013High Point Mayor Bernita Sims' dream of keeping a no-primary election system for High Point City Council seats seems likely to die on Nov. 4, 2014 – on the general election ballot, on which the City Council voted unanimously on Monday, March 18 to place a referendum on the issue.
The referendum would ask voters whether they wanted to keep High Point's current no-primary system, which allows anyone to get onto the general election ballot and winners to win by a mere plurality of votes, or add primaries that would narrow the field down to two candidates for each City Council seat before the general election.
The referendum would also, if approved, return High Point City Council elections from even-numbered years, as they had been since 2008, to odd-numbered years.
The City Council debate over elections started during the 3:30 p.m. meeting of the City Council's March 18 Finance Committee. Note that the committee was the Finance Committee, not the "Committee of the Whole Finance Committee" that Sims created after being elected in November 2012.
Sims killed off all the City Council's traditional committees, which were chaired by councilmembers other than the mayor, and pushed through a vote that would have had all debate done by the full City Council under the control of the mayor's gravel.
Sims scrapped that plan after a revolt by other councilmembers. On Monday, it was At-large Councilmember Britt Moore, not Sims, who wielded the gavel in the Finance Committee meeting.
Councilmember Becky Smothers asked if the City Council was going to vote to suspend the rules at its meeting to consider the election referendum, which wasn't on the agenda.
Sims said the main issues the City Council had to decide were when the referendum would take place and when the new election system, if approved by voters, would take effect.
Smothers recommended putting the referendum on the May 2014 primary ballot, so that the issue wouldn't get mixed up in the general election debates. Sims said that her only objection to doing so was the added cost of a referendum in a primary. High Point doesn't have to pay for part of a Guilford County primary if there are no High Point issues on the ballot.
High Point City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle said the City Council needed to ask the legislature for a local bill to authorize the referendum. She said the City Council could file the language of the bill and make its decision on having the referendum in May 2014 or November 2014. She said the deadline for local bills was Wednesday.
Smothers said, "Let's go ahead and get this done."
During the City Council meeting, Sims explained the history of the City Council's votes on changing High Point elections.
The City Council on March 4 voted to restore primaries and elections in odd-numbered years to High Point's electoral system. The votes on adding primaries and switching to odd-numbered years were 6 to 3, with Sims, Foster Douglas and Jeff Golden – the three black members of the City Council – casting the "no" votes.
High Point legal consultant and lobbyist Fred Baggett on Tuesday, March 5, took those issues to the Guilford County state legislative delegation to request a local bill – and was told that the legislators were unlikely to file a local bill in the General Assembly to make those changes because the 6-to-3 votes showed a lack of agreement, and local bills, which affect only one municipality, are generally based on a substantial agreement in the municipality and its legislative delegation.
A bigger issue was the fact that adding primaries to City Council elections will make it harder for Sims, High Point's first black mayor, to get reelected. That, combined with the racial-breakdown votes, made it likely that the US Department of Justice would scrutinize the election changes closely. The Justice Department must approve the changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, unless the US Supreme Court overturns Section 5.
The Supreme Court in February heard oral arguments in a challenge to Section 5, which allows the Justice Department to review election changes in states and counties with a history of racial discrimination in voting. The court is expected to issue a decision this summer.
Councilmember Judy Mendenhall made a motion to adopt the request for a local bill as presented by Carlyle.
That set off Douglas, who said that the request for a local bill this year was "steamrollered in."
"I didn't agree with the primary process," Douglas said. "I thought the plurality vote was sufficient."
Douglas' statement enraged Smothers, who gave him the evil eye. She said, "Why didn't you make that motion, Mr. Douglas?"
Douglas stared back at Smothers as if he considered her a little dim. The votes were not there to support keeping the no-primary plurality system.
"If you and two other members of the council had voted for it, it would be in now," Smothers told Douglas. "I'm glad now that you can support it."
The City Council voted unanimously to approve the request for a local bill allowing the referendum to be placed on the general election ballot.
If the referendum fails, the terms of those elected in 2014 would continue to be two years, and the plurality election method would remain in place. If the referendum passes, the bill would specify that the terms of those elected in 2014 would last three years until the November 2017 election.